WHITEHALL permanently struggles to adapt to devolution and its detailed consequences for the governance of the UK. The Treasury gets the concept but distrusts the perceived threat to its own fiscal sovereignty.
Individual departments like education, health and Defra (or whatever the Ministry of Agriculture is called this week) have to be constantly reminded that devolution sets limits to their remit.
There is perhaps one department which fully absorbs the idea of shared power. Ironically, since we are dealing with domestic politics, that department is the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
You will appreciate that I am being faintly mischievous here. But only faintly. The modern Foreign Office is inured to the subtlety and complexity of power.
One very senior mandarin of my acquaintance once explained to me with a wry grin that the FCO got devolution because they were well used to dealing with troublesome colonies.
He also told me of the updated strategy for accommodating visiting foreign dignitaries.
The pattern used to be Westminster one day and the City of London the next. Since devolution, they had found that more and more visitors, especially from emergent nations, were keen to visit the Scottish Parliament.
Naturally, I inquired as to the reason. Because, I was told, this time without the grin, the visitors wanted to witness a new democratic institution which had been created without a shot being fired.
I frequently think of that remark when I consider the depth and scope of the structural change which devolution has brought to the UK. To the British State.
It would seem from comments emerging from the Conservative Party and the current government of the UK that I am not alone in this contemplative exercise.
In his Manchester conference speech, the Prime Minister expressed a desire to “restore the sinews of the Union that have been allowed to atrophy”.
His specific objective in this passage was to promote border trunk roads, building upon the Union connectivity report completed by Sir Peter Hendy.
The Greens would object strenuously but other parties might, mostly, welcome improvements to the A1, the A75 and other roads.
However, there is another aspect to this issue. Transport is meant to be devolved to Holyrood yet the PM plainly envisages a central role for the UK Government in any such projects.
This is about power as much as tarmac.
One can go further still by delving into a document published at the Tory conference. This is a series of essays defending and promoting the Union, edited by Andrew Bowie MP and collated by the Centre for Policy Studies.
Beyond the customary discourse about finance and identity, I was struck by how much attention was paid in the document to the impact of independence upon the wider UK, including England.
For example, Theresa May writes: “We may talk about Global Britain but where would England be on the world stage without the rest of the UK.”
This, again, reminded me of sundry past discussions with Whitehall folk, including the FCO. At various points, I heard concerns expressed that Scottish independence would diminish the UK’s global impact.
That the UK sans Scotland, rUK if you like, would be seen as a lesser beast, diplomatically.
In particular, it was occasionally suggested to me that the UK might lose its permanent seat on the security council of the UN or that, at least, the opportunity would be seized by rival nations to challenge that status.
Among the Union essays, William Hague addresses this explicitly. He argues that “Scottish independence would be perceived across the world as a sign of the UK’s decline.”
Lord Hague of Richmond goes further, claiming that this outcome and its consequences would be “met with delight” by autocratic regimes who wish the UK ill.
We have occasionally heard such global arguments previously. And, to be quite clear, these essayists are arguing that Scotland would lose from any diminution of the UK. Not just England.
In the past, however, it was more common for proponents of continued Union to look firstly over the Channel: to suggest that an independent Scotland would fail to enter the European Union or would be punished, fiscally, if it achieved entry.
Naturally, since the UK has now left the EU, the salience of this argument has, to put it mildly, diminished somewhat.
While the SNP deal with the practical consequences of a potential EU border with England, Conservatives seem intent on promulgating a revised form of post-Brexit Union patriotism.
In his conference speech, Boris Johnson spoke of defending “an inherited conglomerate of culture and tradition”.
Perhaps it is simply the longevity of my journalistic career, but his talk of “spirit” sounded to me vaguely familiar. It resonated with echoes from earlier Prime Ministerial speeches expounding British values.
The detail from Mr Johnson was, as is his fashion, somewhat disparate. He ranged eagerly and fleetingly from Churchill (whose reputation he intends to defend) to Olympians, nurses and the England football team.
With the possible exception of that final icon in his list, it appeared that the PM fully intended this historical litany to embrace Scotland in its pan-Union grasp.
And so emerges, in outline, a strategy for countering independence and the SNP. It has three broad elements, aside from discounting the demand for an early referendum.
One, Ministers emphasise the UK’s role in daily Scottish governance. There is a touch of that in the successful “ultra vires” appeal to the Supreme Court although, equally, there is a decided political dimension for the Scottish Government.
Two, as in the essays, the argument that the entire UK would be weakened globally by Scottish independence. England, yes, but also Scotland.
And, three, that emphasis upon a revised, post Brexit British patriotism.
I discussed these points with a senior SNP strategist who said that such arguments only really worked with those who were already broadly in favour of the Union. They did not convert anyone.
I was told: “If you don’t believe Scotland benefits from claims of global clout, if you are against nuclear weapons, if you are tired of imperial pretensions, then you will tend to disregard such points anyway.”
As ever, your call.
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